When Ken Robidoux offered me this column, I hesitated longer than I should have before accepting. But the ability to write about music is too great a temptation. I’ve done some record reviewing before, for my college paper, for publications such as No Depression, when it was a print journal, and Option, when Mark Kemp revived it as a web site some years ago. Like a lot of music fans my age, I grew up reading the reviews and interviews in Rolling Stone and Creem and wondering how one got a job like that. I remember reading Cameron Crowe’s work in Rolling Stone and wondering at a world in which we were both sixteen, yet Crowe was on the road with the Allman Brothers and I was waking up for school again.
I came of age in the last great gasp of freeform radio, when DJs played what they liked. In an hour’s time a listener might hear Derek and the Dominos, John Hartford, Theolonius Monk, Mott the Hoople and half a dozen bands whose names are lost in the ether. I hope to write this column in that spirit of eclecticism. My taste in music is wide ranging, from the folk and country I grew up hearing to my rock and roll youth to the jazz and Americana I find myself mostly listening to now. I intend to write about all these genres and about the artists who make the music. Because I am a music junkie, I am endlessly curious, so if any readers think I should listen to something, please let me know. I’m open to receiving recordings from bands just starting out or that haven’t been given their due.
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I think I first heard Guy Clark on an Austin City Limits in the mid-1970’s. I’d heard some of his songs before. Jerry Jeff Walker had recorded “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “That Old Time Feeling,” and both got a lot of airplay on WZZQ, the great radio station I was lucky enough to be within listening distance of for the 18 desolate months my family and I lived in Jackson, Mississippi. Once I heard “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” it was all over.
In those pre-Amazon, pre-internet days, it was harder to find things, and it was years before I owned copies of any of Guy Clark’s albums. But his songs popped up on other records I found and he appeared on Austin City Limits often enough to keep track of. When I started seeing my lovely wife, Jamie, one of our first dates was to see Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark play. By coincidence, Steve Earle was playing 30 miles away, and that was the show everyone wanted to see, but I strong-armed Jamie and another couple into seeing Clark and Van Zandt. Afterward, no one complained.
2016 was a bad year for musicians. We lost a lot of great ones, but the one that really gutted me--more than Bowie, more than Leonard Cohen, more than Merle Haggard—was Guy Clark. I find myself filling long car rides with his music now, and when I hear his plain spun voice, I feel the way I felt the first time I heard him—like I have arrived at a home I never knew I had until now.
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New music from Malcolm Holcombe is always a good thing. I’ve said more than once that if this was a just world, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean or whoever the latest bro country guys are would be landscaping Malcolm’s yard. Malcolm’s biography is readily available at his website but for those who haven’t seen his name before reading this, Malcolm has been around a long while.
Accompanied by some of his usual musical compatriots, Jared Tyler, Jelly Roll Johnson, and Dennis Crouch, as well as Verlon Thompson, Guy Clark’s longtime guitarist, and Darrell Scott, who plays everything with strings, writes songs, and served as co-producer, Malcolm offers a dozen new songs. For those who have followed Holcombe’s output since A Hundred Lies—there was an album with Sam Milner and one or two small label efforts before that—the biggest change in his music is the growing sense of social consciousness, albeit one that is grounded in the hardscrabble realities of life. The entire album is dedicated to refugees the world over and Holcombe’s rough-edged voice often belies the tender hope in his lyrics.
“Yours No More,” the second cut on the album, speaks to the plight of the long-ago immigrants who “built all our bridges and mined all our coal.” Holcombe has always revered the past, but he is not blinded by blind nostalgia for a rose colored time gone by. The chorus of “Good Ole Days” ends with “Damn good old days.”
Fifty cents a bloody day
No child labor laws
Most them lil babies died
Disease and alcohol
Disease and alcohol
The poor and dispossessed of this world are the people Malcolm Holcombe cares about. Rarely do his songs point fingers. Instead they look long and hard at the circumstances of a world that rewards a few and denies basic material goods and dignity to a great many. “Hold the plow and pray out loud for strength to work the land,” he sings in “Rocky Ground.” But he finds some solace in the chorus of the same song. “Watchin’ you grow old and lovely,” he sings, “hungry to be found.” Our solace in this world is finally the ones we love.
I haven’t mentioned that Malcolm is one of the most singular guitar players in folk or Americana music right now. Without a lot of effects, his muscular finger picking and his thumb, steady as a metronome, provide his songs with an eloquent accompaniment that is only enhanced by the other players in the studio.
From his first record to this most recent one, Malcolm has cut a singular path through the musical landscape. You will not find him following trends (although I hope that someday someone decides to cover some of his songs) or writing songs about pickup trucks and beer. Just as Wale Whitman ended “Song of Myself” by telling his reader “Missing me one place search another,/ I stop somewhere waiting for you,” Malcolm offers his listener the same bargain in “We Struggle,” the album’s last song: “Stay where you are/ Wait till I’m gone/ You’ll find me someday I know.”
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In August I will be mentioning Malcolm Holcombe again when I tell you about Liberty Circus, a spoken word and music collective made up of Malcolm, R.B. Morris, Alan Kaufman and myself. This summer a CD will be released and we will be do a short southern tour in August. Learn more at www.libertycircus.com.
Al Maginnes is the author of seven full length collections, most recently The Next Place and Music From Small Towns, winner of the Jacar Press poetry competition, as well as four chapbooks. He lives with his family in Raleigh, North Carolina and teaches at Wake Technical Community College. He is a member of the editorial board for the online journal One and a member of Liberty Circus, a music and spoken word collective devoted to raising funds for social justice.